The Daily Telegraph Sydney Australia Saturday 8 April 2000
'I'm concerned that success is judged in terms of fame, as opposed to the respect of your peers'
Actor Philip Quast went from Play School to the bright lights of London's West End. Now he's back to play in PAN, the mightiest-yet Australian theatre production.
Click on picture to view large image.
MICHAEL BODEY reports.
Philip Quast holds court in the bowels of the Capitol Theatre. You can't miss the might tall performer in his formal wear. And they backstage technicians love him. He's everyone's mate. If there was a star aura around Quast, no one on the new theatre production PAN know about it.
But 'Quasty' is the star of arguably the biggest theatrical event ever to develop in Australia. PAN, with it 8m high crocodile, towering pirate ship and mischievous band of fantasy creatures, will bring something completely different to the Capitol Theatre from May.
And Quast is its core as Captain Hook, the reliable star around which producers can build the show.
Thankfully, Quast is comfortable because he's back home after years of success on London's West End. he even jokes he feels like he's at a 'B and S'.
And backstage is a bit like a Bachelor and Spinsters' Ball - people scurrying about in anticipation of the big night and the subsequent bonhomie, chaos and, hopefully, big score.
Not that a 'B and S', nor the opening of a major stage production, is foreign territory for Quast. The Tamworth-raised performer has transformed a 17-year stint as a Play School presenter into the kind of stage career only a select few Australians have equaled.
After an award-winning period as Javert in the Australian production of Les Misérables, Quast went straight to London's West End in 1989 to reprise the role.
Then his career became the stuff of dreams - singing at the Royal Albert Hall, two Olivier Awards, Royal Command performances and an extended stay at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But for a man who's lived nine of his past 12 years in London, the return home hasn't been so romantic. His Play School was desecrated, his profession - acting - is struggling and his Australia has become a far more intolerant place.
Quast smiles. 'Don't get me worked up about politics, I'm passionate about it.'
He can't help it. Any Australian expatriate living in London has become a punching bag. Our Prime Minister's refusal to say 'sorry' is a case in point. It's enough to draw some very un-Play School language from the genial performer. 'To be Australian overseas when that happens, people say 'What the f... is going on in your country? You racists.' They don't understand the size of us, that we have a deep north and..'
'Goodness knows what's happening now with the mandatory sentencing, how that looks overseas and Australia shunning the UN,' he says. 'I don't think it can be underestimated. There's going to be a lot of shit because overseas journalists are heading here now.'
It was just as dispiriting during the rise of Pauline Hanson, Quast explains. The nature of journalism means the British press only reported the extremes.
And the extremes of the Hanson agenda weren't pretty. 'And it was very interesting coming back after four years and being here for the republic vote,' Quast says. 'I'm not exaggerating, but England was shocked.'
Quast's return was a jolt on a number of fronts. Any inquiring mind has a lot to think about in the 2000 version of Australia. But the deepest cuts were the arbitrary changes inflicted upon an institution to which Quast had devoted 17 years of his life, Play School.
'I'm completely devoted to it,' he says. 'It comes down to how people were treated, how they heard about it.'
Its longest serving presenter, Benita Collings, was told by phone she was no longer required. Its executive producer, Henrietta Clark, was dumped after being associated with the show for 30 years.
Quast is ropeable. 'By what criteria have they changed it? why were there no test programs or pilots? Have they talked to teachers around the country?' he asks.
Again, his English experience is informative. Quast notes the BBC changed the format of their Play School year and 'and they killed it'. He goes so far as to suggest the lack of a show such as Play School has led to basic education problems in the UK. Prime Minister Tony Blair had only recently announced a return to school teaching the 'three Rs'
'I don't think Play School can be underestimated as a tool in our education system,' says Quast.
Nor should Quast's contribution to Play School be underestimated, says Henrietta Clark. 'How can I express this without sounding all gooey,' she says. 'People loved him. They absolutely loved him. he was a very, very serious actor, so it was very challenging getting the scripts right for him. It's terrific to work with actors who take your job as seriously as you do.'
'Big Phil' had another side, she says. He was also a towering clown who could cause cameramen major problems when his big frame would fall out of the picture.
Their time on Play School meant a lot to Clark and Quast. It was more than a job. Clark chokes up when she recalls directing Quast in a song with Big Ted called It's So Nice to Have a Cuddle With Someone You Love'
It's not hard to find people similarly enamoured with Quast. People love him on their team.
You can rest assured he's not on the ABC's team any more. After being a major player in the million-dollar debacle that was The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, the ABC's treatment of Play School was 'closure' for Quast.
The troubled Australian drama Harvey McHugh was made, trashed and then remade at extraordinary expense and to great controversy before fading away in 1994. Quast wrote to then ABC Chief David Hill five times as the ABC blew their money. He told Hill he could make 120 Play Schools for the cost of that one bloated series. Hill didn't reply. 'I think the ABC is f...ed now really,' says Quast. 'It's gone.'
The production of PAN appears to have overcome its wobbles and it has made a commitment to Sydney beyond the Olympics. During the Olympics Arts Festival Quast will join Hugo Weaving in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The White Devil.
Yet Quast feels like a lucky one.
The NIDA graduate believes 'most actors that I know now, especially theatre actors, fell they have no credentials at all to draw a crowd in'.
'Even the media now aren't interested in theatre actors unless they're a big movie star and now Sydney has a number of them here, it starts to obscure the notion of celebrity even to the point where the people who put the money up think how in the hell do we sell a show like this?
Is Rob Guest a big enough star to sell Jolson? Would it sell out if it was Keanu Reeves?'
Quast contends, 'marketing is the prime culture of our time'. It can make someone like him - a talented, aging performer who hasn't starred in a feature film - unsettled.
Sadly, people might look a little differently at Quast's English Olivier Award for his performance as a gay, tap-dancing, polio victim in The Fix. Not because of his performance. More likely because American Beauty's Oscar-winner Sam Mendes directed him.
The fame thing is eating away at his profession. He realised that when he returned to his high school before Christmas last year.
'I'd never been back, ever, and I walked back on the last speech night of the 20th century,' he says. "They held me up as being one of the lights of what you could achieve and that distressed me in a sense, because, as I said when I spoke to them, where does that leave all those people who aren't here tonight? I'm very concerned that success is judged in terms of fame, as opposed to terms like the respect of your peers and what you achieve and what you are learning and the skills you've acquired.'
Quast shouldn't worry. He has them all.
Kate and I would like to thank Elizabeth and Megan for their help in providing us with this article.
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